Hamas to free new wave of captives in Gaza truce

AFP , Saturday 25 Nov 2023

Hamas fighters are set to release a new wave of captives Saturday in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, officials said.

Rawda Abu Ajamieh hugs relatives and friends after her release from an Israeli prison as part of a t
Rawda Abu Ajamieh hugs relatives and friends after her release from an Israeli prison as part of a truce agreement between Israel and Hamas in the al-Duheishe refugee camp in Bethlehem s occupied West Bank, November 24, 2023. AFP


Key mediator Qatar was expected to announce the numbers of prisoners and captives to be freed later Saturday, the second swap since a four-day ceasefire came into effect on Friday and largely silenced the guns on both sides.

Israeli occupation authorities said they had received a list of the captives to be freed but did not provide numbers or the precise timing.

On Friday, the first day of the truce, Hamas released 24 captives, according to key mediator Qatar and an official Israeli list. They comprised 13 Israelis -- all of whom were women and children, including some dual citizens -- 10 Thais and one Filipino.

A two-minute video released by Hamas showed masked militants with rifles, wearing military fatigues and the green headband of its armed wing, as they handed the hostages over to Red Cross officials

Israel in turn freed 39 Palestinian women and children from its prisons.

"It's only a start, but so far it's gone well," US President Joe Biden told reporters in Massachusetts, where he was spending the Thanksgiving holiday.

"I think the chances are real" for extending the truce, he said.

Biden also urged a broader effort to emerge from the crisis with a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.

About 215 captives remain in Gaza, Israeli occupation army spokesman Doron Spielman said.

"We're unaware, many of these cases, if they are dead or alive. We're trying to collect intelligence," he said.

Hamas fighters snatched the captives when they broke through Gaza's militarised border with Israel on October 7, killing about 1,200 people, according to Israeli figures.

In response to the deadliest attack in its history, Israeli occupation army launched an air, artillery and naval offensive on Gaza, killing about 15,000 people, more than two third of them are women and children, according to the Hamas government in Gaza.

Hamas is expected to free 50 captives during the ceasefire in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners, part of an agreement struck after talks involving Israel, Palestinian militant groups, Qatar, Egypt and the United States.

In Tel Aviv, the smiling faces of freed captives were projected onto the walls of the art museum, with the words: "I'm home".

Near a hospital in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva, people applauded and held up Israeli flags as helicopters flew in freed captives.

Thailand's government said it estimated another 20 citizens were still being held by Hamas. "We sincerely hope that the remaining hostages will be treated humanely," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

On the other side, Palestinians cheered the return of prisoners from Israeli jails.

Of the 39 prisoners freed by Israel on Friday, 28 were released in the occupied West Bank, an AFP correspondent reported, while the other 11 were brought to occupied east Jerusalem, according to the Palestinian Prisoners' Club.

Crowds of Palestinians in the West Bank set off firecrackers, waved flags, and whistled as two white coaches ferried prisoners out of the Ofer military camp, according to AFP journalists at the scene.

"I spent the end of my childhood and my adolescence in prison, far from my parents and their hugs," freed prisoner Marah Bakir, 24, told AFP after returning to her home in occupied east Jerusalem.

"That's how it is with a state that oppresses us."

Earlier in the evening, Israeli authorities fired tear gas to disperse the crowds. The Palestinian Red Crescent said three people were shot and wounded by Israeli security forces.

"The police are in our house and are stopping people from coming to see us," said Fatina Salman, whose daughter Malak, now 23, was among those released.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, vowed to bring all the Hamas captives home.

"This is one of the goals of the war, and we are committed to achieving all the goals of the war," he said.

Humanitarian convoy

The pause in the Israeli war on Gaza opened the way to desperately needed aid.

Trucks carrying supplies, including fuel, food, and medicine, began moving into Gaza through the Rafah crossing from Egypt shortly after the truce began at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) Friday.

Two hundred aid trucks in total passed through -- the biggest humanitarian convoy to enter the besieged territory since the war started -- according to the Israeli defence ministry that handles Palestinian civil affairs.

Jens Laerke, the spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency OCHA, expressed hope that the pause would lead "to a longer-term humanitarian ceasefire".

Gazans have struggled to survive with shortages of water, food, fuel, and medicine. 

The ceasefire also sparked a mass movement of thousands of people who had sought refuge in schools and hospitals from relentless Israeli bombardment.

The UN estimates that 1.7 million of Gaza's 2.4 million people have been displaced by the fighting.

In southern Gaza's Khan Yunis, where many Palestinians fled, a cacophony of car horns and ambulance sirens replaced the sound of war.

People loaded belongings onto carts, strapped them to car roofs, or slung bags over their shoulders, crowding streets to return to their homes from temporary shelters.

Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets warning people that the war is not over and it is "very dangerous" to return north, the focus of Israel's military campaign.

Several thousand Palestinians nevertheless attempted to move north on Friday, the UN humanitarian affairs organization said.

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